Last week some Jewish communities, including Baltimore, took advantage of the fact that most people are off from work on December 25th and held a “Community Mitzvah Day.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, it includes some good things. Participants do great volunteer work in the community. The problem is that “Community Mitzvah Day” mis-educates people about a fundamental part of Judaism, mitzvot (the plural of mitzvah).
What are mitzvot?
Well, opportunities to participate in “Community Mitzvah Day” tend to all be volunteer or community service opportunities. Based on that, it looks like mitzvot are good deeds or acts of kindness. As a Jewish educator, I can share that most of my students have come to me thinking that a mitzvah is a good deed. This is probably the understanding many of their parents have too, but it’s just as wrong as thinking that shapes are squares. Sure, some shapes are squares. But a geometry teacher would have a lot of explaining to do if his students thought square was the definition of a shape instead of knowing that a square is one example of the many types of shapes there are.
The Hebrew word mitzvah actually means commandment. In Judaism mitzvot refer to the commandments given by the Torah, which according to Jewish tradition is the word of God, and the commandments given by the rabbis. There are 613 different mitzvot from the Torah, and lots of other mitzvot from the rabbis. Chesed (acts of kindness) is one example of the hundreds of different mitzvot there are. There are mitzvot that we understand, such as the mitzvah not to murder. And there are mitzvot that we don’t understand, such as the mitzvah to avoid wearing a blend of wool and linen. There are mitzvot between people, such as the mitzvah to be honest in our business dealings. And there are mitzvot between man and God, such as the mitzvah to pray. There are many mitzvot, and while chesed is important, it’s no more or less important than most.
One of the dangers in mis-educating Jews to think that mitzvot are good deeds is that they then don’t understand mitzvot as the obligations that they are. Good deeds are nice things. They’re generally seen as things that are extra; they’re good to do, but optional. Mitzvot on the other hand, are things that God or the rabbis command us to do. That makes mitzvot obligations (although of course each of us has the free will to choose whether or not we’ll observe those obligations).
In Baltimore’s “Community Mitzvah Day,” stickers were given out that read “I did a mitzvah today!” Now it’s not entirely clear what it means to do a commandment. But assuming the sticker means I observed a mitzvah today, that’s not actually so impressive. In fact, if we consider that there’s a mitzvah not to murder, a mitzvah not to steal, and a mitzvah not to injure people, a person who only observes one mitzvah in a day is probably a criminal.
The truth is that many people observe at least some mitzvot without even thinking about it and it’s important that they know that. Those who don’t see themselves as mitzvah observant Jews should understand that they probably already do some mitzvot, and they have the opportunity to do more if they choose. The Torah teaches us to treat others the way we want to be treated. That’s a mitzvah, something we’re obligated to do. The same Torah also teaches us to refrain from certain labors on the Sabbath. That’s also a mitzvah we’re obligated to do. We Jews should all be trying to do both of these mitzvot. For those of us who feel more confident about the way we observe one of them than the way we observe the other, let’s keep doing that one and try to improve on the other.
Doing more chesed when we have more opportunity to do it is great, as is a Jewish community helping to provide people with chesed opportunities. But communities should do this without mis-educating people. Instead of calling it “Community Mitzvah Day” when participation means practicing one specific mitzvah out of hundreds, let’s be specific and call it “Community Chesed Day”. Instead of having stickers that say, “I did a mitzvah!” let’s have stickers that say, “I did a chesed!” Instead of letting this meaningful Jewish experience mis-educate people, let’s use it as an opportunity to educate them. Let’s teach people that doing chesed is a Jewish responsibility, without leading them to wrongly think that it’s the only one.